Words: Femke Wijdekop (October 2018)
Image Credits: Femke Wijdekop
Reading Time: 2.5 minutes

Restorative justice is a fast-growing social movement and set of practices that aim to redirect society’s retributive (punishment-oriented) response to crime. It emerged in North America during the 1970s when alternative approaches to the criminal justice system, such as alternative dispute resolution, were becoming a trend. It rose alongside the victims’ rights movement, which argued for greater involvement of crime victims in the criminal justice process, as well as for the use of restitution as compensation for losses. A 1974 case in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, is considered the beginning point of today’s restorative justice movement. This “Kitchener experiment” required two teenagers to meet with and pay restitution to every one of the twenty-two people whose property they had vandalized.

The Mennonite Church played a role of importance in rolling out the first Victim-Offender Reconciliation processes in Canada and the USA.  At the same time, many of the values, principles, and practices of restorative justice reflect those of indigenous cultures such as the Maori in New-Zealand and the First Nations People of Canada and the USA. In these indigenous cultures, community-members, led by an elder, collectively participate in finding a solution for conflict.

Restorative justice views crime not as a depersonalized breaking of the law but as a wrong against other members of the community. It involves community-based processes, which offer an inclusive way of dealing with offenders and victims of crime through facilitated meetings. These meetings provide a forum in which offenders can take responsibility for their offending. Restorative processes empower victims by inviting them into the heart of the criminal justice process. Victims are given a positive, safe environment in which key questions can be answered, emotional and material needs can be expressed and healing can begin. Restorative processes focus on accountability and seek to repair the damage done by crime by applying a practical response and, where fitting, appropriate sanctions. They also create the possibility of reconciliation through the practice of compassion, healing, mercy and forgiveness.

There are four main types of restorative processes:

  • Victim-offender conferences: a process which provides victims of crime the opportunity to meet the offender in a safe and structured setting, with the goal of holding the offender directly accountable for their behavior while providing assistance and compensation to the victim.
  • Community and family group conferences: a meeting between victims, offenders and their respective families and communities, led by a trained facilitator, in which the affected parties discuss how they have been harmed by the offence and how the offender might best repair the harm.
  • Sentencing circles: a community-directed process, conducted in partnership with the criminal justice system, to develop consensus on an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties. These circles, which are sometimes called peacemaking circles, use traditional (indigenous) circle ritual and structures.
  • Community reparative boards, an alternative to the criminal justice system.

Restorative processes can be applied alongside retributive sanctions (fines/imprisonment), as part of a convicts’ rehabilitation process, or, if the prosecution or judge so decides, instead of retributive sanctions. Restorative justice has seen worldwide growth since the 1990s and most academic studies suggest it makes offenders less likely to reoffend. A 2007 study also found that it had the highest rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability of any method of justice.  It is applied to individual criminal cases and to system-wide offences, of which the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the most famous example.

FEMKE WIJDEKOP is a Legal Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Security and a Senior Expert in environmental justice at IUCN Netherlands. Previously, she worked as a researcher in the fields of international and constitutional law at the University of Amsterdam. She is a co-litigant in the Urgenda climate case and writes about topics such as the emerging ecocentrism in law, Ecocide, and the protection of Environmental Defenders. Read more about Femke’s work on EARTH RESTORATIVE JUSTICE HERE.

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